Nobody still knows if teams are interested or disinterested in this league so when trying to make predictions in that context, the safest options is to go for home wins.
Cork and Clare came up trumps in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Ennis. I was working for Sunday Sport on RTÉ so I wasn’t in the Park yesterday but, even from the TV studios in Montrose, you could sense the lift the Clare boys got from the home crowd, especially when the game got tight.
Podge Collins seemed to be a bit of a lightning rod when introduced. Clare’s progress in the match appeared to have stalled but Podge won a couple of dirty balls, which Clare hadn’t been doing, and the crowd cleared their throat and roared on their approval. There was a similar vibe in Cork on Saturday night because you just sensed that the locals wanted it badly, and the players responded.
I didn’t tip Waterford on Saturday. They were at home in Walsh Park but I just got a sense from Derek McGrath’s comments last week that they are not as hung up on the league this year as they may have been in other years. Yet one of the main reasons I went for Wexford was because, unlike most other teams, I don’t think Waterford’s home venue does this team any favours.
The stats for home wins in this league is 60% but Waterford’s average hasn’t been anywhere near that figure in recent years. We went there with Dublin in 2014 and relegated them. They’ve won plenty of games in Walsh Park since but the confines are tight. The ground is always sticky and, despite all the protestations of Waterford being too defensive, I feel they’re a flair team who are far more suited to a better pitch. The sod will be in far better shape in summer than it is now but I’m not sure that Walsh Park will be the fortress that places like Cusack Park and Parnell Park – similar grounds – will be for teams like Clare and Dublin in the championship. Credit though to Wexford who have real momentum and would be my outside tip for the league.
Croke Park was in superb shape on Saturday evening, as you’d expect but Dublin’s win rate in Parnell has always been far superior than in Croker. That may sound like an excuse, when Dublin had no excuses against Offaly on Saturday, but these are the little inches that you notice during the league, and which often add up to metres in the championship. And we’re all searching for those little signs more than ever now during this league.
Tipperary won’t be unduly concerned with the result yesterday but one theme that has been emerging with this group – even if they were down a raft of big names – is that Tipp will always give you a chance to win the game. With the sides level just before half-time, Tipp had a few mad shots at goal and Clare took the few chances they created in that period to go in three points ahead at the break. With Clare having had the breeze, I felt it was decisive, especially when the match was always likely to go to the line, which it did. Tipp failed to register a single goal chance but that caveat will be sorted when Seamie Callanan and John McGrath return. It’s the other stuff that Mick Ryan will be concerned about.
There were lots of positives for Clare but the biggest one was the form of David Fitzgerald, who was brilliant and who destroyed anyone Tipp tried on him. There have been question marks about this Clare defence but the type of leadership and responsibility that Fitzgerald showed yesterday is what Clare players must continue to provide from now on.
Before the game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday night, I met Michael Walsh, the former Kilkenny goalkeeper, whose son Ollie was down to start but who didn’t. He had been in Nowlan Park the previous Sunday for the Walsh Cup final and, while a relatively inexperienced Kilkenny team were beaten by Wexford, Michael said he was very impressed with the performance.
I could see exactly what he was talking about in the first half because Kilkenny were impressive in that period. The play was a bit loose, and very open at times, but whatever was said in the Cork dressing room at half-time, they came out with a real intent in the second half. I’d say John Meyler didn’t pull any punches because, even with Kilkenny’s guaranteed fight and spirit, losing to a Kilkenny team without so many of their big names would not have been acceptable with the team Cork had on the pitch.
Luke Meade, who had come on just before half-time, really set the tone with his work-rate but Cork’s big guns up front stepped up, especially Conor Lehane, Seamus Harnedy and Shane Kingston. The three of them did drift during the game. They weren’t ultra-consistent but the plays they did make were invariably big plays, most of which were either scorers or assists.
Cork grabbed that initiative early in the second half and even though Kilkenny charged at them, I felt the tone was set and Kilkenny were always chasing. They battled and dug in and, while 0-24 was impressive shooting, some of the striking and shot selection was not of the standard you’d expect from Kilkenny. Then again, this is not the decorated and medal-laden stock of Kilkenny players we have been used to watching for over a decade.
Cork did carve them open too on a couple of occasions and would have had a couple of more goals only for two brilliant Eoin Murphy saves.
Brian Cody will have been disappointed not to have got something out of the match but he will take a lot of positives out of the performance. Joe Lyng battled very hard at centre-back. Pádraig Walsh was really steady at full-back. Walter Walsh took some wrong options at full-forward but he had a great battle with Eoin Cadogan, and sniped a couple of excellent scores. More importantly though, Cody will have been pleased with how well some of the younger guys showed up.
Meyler will be happy, especially with this being the first game in front of the locals. The Park under the lights is a great venue but, while I’m on the topic of pitches, the turf in the Park is still an issue. I know we’re still only in January but the field did cut up very badly and it was very difficult to rise the ball. In the past, that field was always a bog in the winter and a carpet in the summer but that pitch is still going to have to be sorted given the volume of games, especially their two home games coming there in the summer.
Offaly’s win against Dublin was the result of the weekend. Offaly were full value but I wasn’t that surprised given the team Dublin started with, which was full of rookies, and which presented Offaly – a big, strong physical team – with loads of opportunity, which they impressively took.
Dublin will put this result into perspective; they are still down the Cuala contingent, plus a host of other big names, but this is still not the start Pat Gilroy would have wanted.
A team that would have had promotion as a legitimate target may now come under pressure to make the top four and a league quarter-final. They have to travel to Dunloy at the weekend to play Antrim.
Home venue and a passionate local support will be a factor. So will the pitch, whatever state it’s in.
Jeez, maybe I should call this a horticultural column!